Two leading fine-dine establishments in the city searched far and wide for innovative solutions to reduce food waste. And the common answer they found? Beer.
Fond memories of beer drinking in Hong Kong are often tied to the clamour of a wet-market dinner rush or the thrill of buy-one-get-one-free happy-hour deals at the pub. We might forget how the night went after the fifth pint, but we’d never fail at picking out the signature lapis and emerald – adorned by Blue Girl and Tsing Tao promoters – on a Pantone line-up, ever.
As a city, we adore beer. It’s affordable, refreshing on a hot day and pairs incredibly well with our most-loved greasy dishes. We’re partial to the 640ml glass bottles; sure, we’ll take the 330ml aluminium cans on occasion, but only when they come in plastic buckets of six, minimum. Simply put, we drink beer in volume. It could easily replace drinking water at the dining table and no one would bat an eye.
A little more than a decade ago witnessed an evolution in the city’s love affair with the hoppy drink. The microbrewery movement, which started in the ’70s in the US and UK, matured and expanded its footprint in Asia. Whereas previously everyone kept an eye out for supermarket deals on commercially produced 12-packs, suddenly the language used to discuss beer begins to mirror that of wine connoisseurs: the body, mouthfeel and aftertaste of a brew are observed in detail, with a full spectrum of hues replacing the originally four-fold colour range of yellow, amber, brown and black. People became eager to learn the origins, brewing techniques and stories behind every bottle.
Since then, craft beers in Hong Kong have come a long way – from dedicated bars offering on-tap selections from around the world to subscription services bringing new products straight to your door, every month. Microbreweries popped up in industrial buildings across the city, using local ingredients to produce uniquely local brews – Young Master’s Cha Chaan Teng Sour and Hong Kong Beer Co’s seasonal and limited-edition New Territories Series are still among our favourites.
Most recently, we’re seeing craft beer moving up again on the artisanal ladder. Fine-dining establishments Amber and Mono respectively collaborated with local breweries – Young Master and Black Kite – to create their own beers – a thoughtful and well-executed effort in reducing food waste in the restaurants. “Sustainability is a central tenet at Amber,” says Richard Ekkebus, director of culinary operations and F&B at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, as he describes the making of the small-batch-produced Amber’s Dark Toast Wild Ale. “This collaboration was inspired by our homemade burnt-sourdough toast. We bake our sourdough in house, and there’re often bits deemed unsuitable to serve to our guests. Wanting to give a second life to what would’ve otherwise been discarded bread, we played on the yeasty nature shared by beer and bread and decided to upcycle our ingredients with the help of a local brewery.”
“It was a great privilege to work with chef Ekkebus and his team on this project,” says Rohit Dugar, founder of Young Master. “We share the same value on responsible production and are delighted to be able to repurpose the restaurant’s well-loved sourdough. Our aim was to create an elegant and complex beer that reflects the same level of technique and finesse that goes into every dish at Amber. From grain to glass, it was a painstaking six-month process, but it was very rewarding.”
The ale is created under Young Master’s Days of Being Wild programme, the first mixed-culture wild-yeast fermentation programme of its kind in Asia. Inspired by traditional lambic beers from Belgium, the brew is fermented and aged in an oak fodder featuring a medley of wild yeast and bacteria strains. Overtime, the mixture takes on an intricate flavour reminiscent of natural farmhouse funk and refreshing fruits. Aged further in a chardonnay barrel, the beer – with an elegant, vinous mouthfeel – is suitable for long cellaring and continue to evolve with age. “The bright acidity combined with sweeter notes from oak and malt makes this beer naturally suited for food pairing,” Ekkebus explains.
“We worked closely with the Amber team to ensure the flavour of the sourdough is elevated in our concoction,” Dugar adds. “We tested repetitively, toasting the bread in various stages from golden to dark brown to burnt black, and even steeped teas with ground-up sourdough toast, until we were satisfied with the final rendition that imparts notes of hojicha and caramel.”
Like Amber’s quest to upcycle its unwanted sourdough, Mono looked for creative ways to utilise leftover husks and cacao-bean skins, and also found the answer in beer. The restaurant, celebrated for chef-owner Ricardo Chaneton’s bean-to- plate presentation of the native South American plant, has already been fermenting the trimmings of fresh cacao to make chicha, a drink traditionally made with corn or pineapple that’s widely enjoyed in Latin America. Pivoting to beer production seemed a natural progression. “In Latin American cuisine, beer is one of the best beverages for pairing,” Chaneton explains. “Beer pairs beautifully with the spices we use as well as the fresh notes of citrus and other ingredients commonly found in our dishes.
“We had a great time partnering with Black Kite Brewery – we share the same language and learned a lot from each other when talking about beer production and chocolate making. Everything started with cracking open a fresh cacao bean to let Black Kite’s team try the fruit – which they loved, of course – and we proceeded to experiment with numerous fermentation techniques, and conducted several rounds of sampling and tasting, before we nailed down the final recipe.”
Named after the birthplace of the cacao pods, the Theobroma Blonde is a crisp golden ale with a distinctive nuttiness. “It was a mission for all of us to ensure the taste of the premium cacao shines through,” says Tom Turner, head brewer of Black Kite Brewery. “The outer husk proved to be interesting but didn’t deliver what we wanted, so over a 12-month period we focused on using the dried skin from the beans, creating a formula that gives a wonderful aroma and flavour to compliment Mono’s ever-changing menus.”
Elaborating on the versatile nature of beer, which seems to infuse with external flavours beautifully without an overpowering undertone, Dugar comments that “as a category it can deliver an extremely wide range of drinking experiences, from unassuming and refreshing to brooding and complex. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the drink to find its place in the world of luxury dining; with craft brewing, there’s been a revival in exploration of a range of interesting and sophisticated formulas that pair beautifully with high-end ingredients. We believe more upscale eateries will follow the footstep of forward-thinking and progressive fine-dining venues to embrace and recognise artisanal beers.”
The two craft brews mentioned here are incredibly tasty, but what makes them even more delicious is the positive social impact they bring, and it looks as if beer has been doing more for the city than just reducing its food waste. YAU, another craft beer brand created in Hong Kong, takes its name after the Chinese character for “friend”. Since its conception in 2017, the brand not only produces using local ingredients but is also committed to supporting local culture and the artistic community working to preserve it.
In addition to designing the bottle packaging with local creative trio BrainRental Lab, YAU has organised a series of community projects to showcase Hong Kong artists. Project YAU in 2020 honoured several local craftsmen and photographers, while brand activation often results from seasonal collaborations that celebrate festivities such as Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day with a special Hong Kong twist. Last year, YAU joined forces with K11 Art Mall to exhibit works by neon artist Polly Chan that vibrantly spell out colloquial slangs often slurred between friends during a night out. The show got great reviews, with visitors commenting how fun and nostalgic it feels to see some of their favourite NSFW phrases immortalised through art.
So next time you grab an icy-cool pint with friends on a hot summer afternoon, give it a taste; is it bright and citrusy? Or malty with a hint of toffee? Maybe it hits bitter initially from a hop-heavy base, but balances perfectly with a sweet aftertaste of altruism?